Beginning with the Stock Market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as it would later be called, swept across the United States, plunging much of the country into an unprecedented state of poverty. Crop prices fell by 60%. Construction projects and manufacturing ground to a standstill. Unemployment wavered between 25-33%. And, out west, in the middle of this economic disaster, Mother Nature began to withhold rain. The Dust Bowl had begun.
While many Americans dug in, scraping and scrimping, stretching money and rationing food, another way of coping emerged. One in which frustration and anger, hunger and need, were not something to be endured; they were something to be fought…by whatever means necessary.
Welcome to the Age of Lawlessness.
The desperation of the Great Depression led to a new generation of criminal heroes, those whose exploits weren’t seen as wrong, despite their illegal and brutal nature, but as needed, a natural respite against the government and institutions that had failed them. Names like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd became household names, as did the monikers of two seemingly lovestruck kids from Texas, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
A product of the Depression, Bonnie grew up in West Dallas, the daughter of a widowed seamstress. She did well in school, possessing a special penchant for art and poetry, but times were tough. Two days before turning sixteen, she dropped out of school and married Roy Thornton, a union that disintegrated shortly thereafter, though the pair never actually divorced. By 1929, she was back living with her mother and working as a waitress, poor, angry, and lonely.
Clyde grew up on an impoverished farm on the outskirts of Dallas. After several years of near-starvation, the family abandoned their homestead and migrated to the city, although they spent two months homeless and two more living in a tent before they were able to save up enough money for a house. The life of poverty hardened Clyde, and he was arrested for the first time in 1926..and again in 1927, 1928, and 1929. His meager jobs couldn’t provided enough to sustain; crime, he believed, was the only viable option.
In January 1930, the winds of fate shifted as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow met at the house of mutual friend. Instantly smitten, their lives would never be the same.
Shortly after meeting, Clyde was arrested and sent to Eastham Prison Farm, where he committed his first murder, killing of a fellow inmate. He escaped a short time later but was soon recaptured. When he was finally released in February of 1932, Bonnie was waiting.
Joined by a few close friends, Bonnie and Clyde began what would become a nationally renown crime-spree, robbing a small mom-and-pop stores and gas stations. Their petty exploits, however, were not without violence. By the end of their first year, three people had been killed in the crosshairs, including a sheriff’s deputy.
By 1933, the “Barrow Gang,” as they were soon to be called, had set up a secret hideout in Joplin, Missouri. Although common sense would encourage the group to keep a low profile, they often hosted loud drunken parties, arousing the suspicions of neighbors and leading to a second police shoot-out, during which two more lawmen were killed. The group escaped but left behind most of their belongings, including a roll of undeveloped film and several of Bonnie’s poems.
The Joplin Globe published several of the images, which quickly spread across the newswire. They showed members of the group goofing off, smoking cigars and pointing guns at one another. The paper ran a poem of Bonnie’s along with the photos, a piece she entitled “The Story of Suicide Sal.”
We each of us have a good ‘alibi’
For being down here in the ‘joint’
But few of them really are justified
If you get right down to the point.
You’ve heard of a woman’s glory
Being spent on a ‘downright cur’
Still you can’t always judge the story
As true, being told by her.
As long as I’ve stayed on this ‘island’
And heard ‘confidence tales’ from each ‘gal’
Only one seemed interesting and truthful-
The story of ‘Suicide Sal’.
Now ‘Sal’ was a gal of rare beauty,
Though her features were coarse and tough;
She never once faltered from duty
To play on the ‘up and up’.
‘Sal’ told me this tale on the evening
Before she was turned out ‘free’
And I’ll do my best to relate it
Just as she told it to me:
I was born on a ranch in Wyoming;
Not treated like Helen of Troy,
I was taught that ‘rods were rulers’
And ‘ranked’ as a greasy cowboy.
Then I left my old home for the city
To play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
It holds for a country girl.
There I fell for ‘the line’ of a ‘henchman’
A ‘professional killer’ from ‘Chi’
I couldn’t help loving him madly,
For him even I would die.
One year we were desperately happy
Our ‘ill gotten gains’ we spent free,
I was taught the ways of the ‘underworld’
Jack was just like a ‘god’ to me.
I got on the ‘F.B.A.’ payroll
To get the ‘inside lay’ of the ‘job’
The bank was ‘turning big money’!
It looked like a ‘cinch for the mob’.
Eighty grand without even a ‘rumble’-
Jack was last with the ‘loot’ in the door,
When the ‘teller’ dead-aimed a revolver
From where they forced him to lie on the floor.
I knew I had only a moment-
He would surely get Jack as he ran,
So I ‘staged’ a ‘big fade out’ beside him
And knocked the forty-five out of his hand.
They ‘rapped me down big’ at the station,
And informed me that I’d get the blame
For the ‘dramatic stunt’ pulled on the ‘teller’
Looked to them, too much like a ‘game’.
The ‘police’ called it a ‘frame-up’
Said it was an ‘inside job’
But I steadily denied any knowledge
Or dealings with ‘underworld mobs’.
The ‘gang’ hired a couple of lawyers,
The best ‘fixers’ in any mans town,
But it takes more than lawyers and money
When Uncle Sam starts ‘shaking you down’.
I was charged as a ‘scion of gangland’
And tried for my wages of sin,
The ‘dirty dozen’ found me guilty-
From five to fifty years in the pen.
I took the ‘rap’ like good people,
And never one ‘squawk’ did I make
Jack ‘dropped himself’ on the promise
That we make a ‘sensational break’.
Well, to shorten a sad lengthy story,
Five years have gone over my head
Without even so much as a letter-
At first I thought he was dead.
But not long ago I discovered;
From a gal in the joint named Lyle,
That Jack and his ‘moll’ had ‘got over’
And were living in true ‘gangster style’.
If he had returned to me sometime,
Though he hadn’t a cent to give
I’d forget all the hell that he’s caused me,
And love him as long as I lived.
But there’s no chance of his ever coming,
For he and his moll have no fears
But that I will die in this prison,
Or ‘flatten’ this fifty years.
Tomorrow I’ll be on the ‘outside’
And I’ll ‘drop myself’ on it today,
I’ll ‘bump ’em if they give me the ‘hotsquat’
On this island out here in the bay…
The iron doors swung wide next morning
For a gruesome woman of waste,
Who at last had a chance to ‘fix it’
Murder showed in her cynical face.
Not long ago I read in the paper
That a gal on the East Side got ‘hot’
And when the smoke finally retreated,
Two of gangdom were found ‘on the spot’.
It related the colorful story
Of a ‘jilted gangster gal’
Two days later, a ‘sub-gun’ ended
The story of ‘Suicide Sal’.
A new kind of hero was born.
Fueled by Bonnie’s romanticism, the pair’s on-camera charisma, and an overwhelming discontent with their government, their position, and their lives, Bonnie and Clyde found themselves the source of much adoration, their capers cheered by poverty-stricken masses who viewed them as a modern day Robin Hoods.
But as their popularity grew, so did their boldness. They robbed banks, committed kidnapping for ransoms, and even staged a prison breakout in which two guards were shot. Their fame made the risk of recognition tenfold and, despite–or perhaps because–of their celebrity, the pair were discovered and ambushed by police on May 21, 1934. They were killed instantly. Thousands of people crowded outside their respective funeral homes in Dallas hoping for a glimpse of the legendary outlaws.
During the course of their two year crime spree, Bonnie and Clyde are believed to have been responsible for thirteen murders and numerous other crimes, including fifteen bank robberies and several kidnappings. They are buried separately in Dallas, their felonies far from forgotten nearly a hundred years later. Although its easy nowadays to question the morality of coloring such lawlessness and violence as gallantry, Bonnie and Clyde were truly a product of their time, their crime spree a testament to the hopelessness felt by so many during the Great Depression and the great lengths some would go to in order to survive.